Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls
1.6 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Wild and scenic, the two-tiered Kaaterskill Falls- the tallest waterfall in the state of New York with a 260 foot drop- has enchanted visitors for centuries, inspiring paintings by Thomas Cole and writings by Washington Irving. Near the popular North South Lake recreation area in the Catskill Mountains, the base of the falls can be accessed by a short but steep hike with lots of stairs from the Laurel House Trailhead. Uphill-averse visitors can still see the falls from above via a short hike to an overlook, although the view from the base of the falls is far mightier and satisfying. This is one of the highlights of New York’s Catskill Mountains but it’s no secret: expect to share this wonder with hundreds of other hikers on nice weekend days.

A word of warning: as with almost all waterfalls, the terrain around Kaaterskill Falls can be treacherous due to cliffs, slippery rocks, and fast-moving water. Stay on trail and don’t do stupid things.

I hiked Kaaterskill Falls during a fall foliage trip through the Catskills with Anna and my parents in mid-October. The waterfall is about two to three hours driving from the New York metro area, depending on where you leave from; we took I-87 (the New York Thruway) north to exit 20 at Saugerties, turned left at the exit ramp onto Route 212 west just briefly and turned right onto Route 32 north, following it 6 miles to a fork between Route 32 and Route 32A. At the fork, we stayed to the left to take Route 32A, which brought us into the village of Palenville. When Route 32A merged with Route 23A, we took the left fork to follow Route 23A west into the Kaaterskill Clove (the canyon of Kaaterskill Creek). Route 23A winded through the canyon and ascended to the village of Haines Falls; once in town, we followed the signs for North South Lake and turned right onto North Lake Road. We followed North Lake Road two miles east to the signed turnoff on the right for Laurel House Road and Kaaterskill Falls. Laurel House Road was a bumpy paved road that headed briefly downhill to a large gravel parking lot. Although the parking area is large, Kaaterskill Falls is immensely popular and the lot is frequently full; we waited about 10 minutes to be able to pull into the lot and find a parking spot on a sunny October holiday Monday.

The trail to Kaaterskill Falls departed from the southeast corner of the parking lot. While the hike described here is the full hike to the base of the lower falls, there are three potential final destinations for hikers, depending on how much they wish to exert themselves: the short, easy half-mile round trip to the falls overlook and the viewpoints at the base of the upper and lower falls, both of which involve long staircase ascents on the return hike.

Initially, the trail was wide with a gentle downhill grade and a comfortable trail tread as it began descending through the forest from the Laurel House Trailhead. Arriving in mid-October, we had come near peak fall color and so we enjoyed the yellow and red foliage around us shining in the afternoon lighting. After just 0.2 miles of hiking, as the trail approached a bridge on Kaaterskill Creek, we came to the turnoff for the falls overlook. On our inbound hike, we checked out the overlook, taking the short spur trail downhill through a switchback to reach the wooden viewing platform. The view at the overlook was decent: we could see the upper falls dropping into the cliff-lined gorge below and there was also a nice view to Kaaterskill High Peak across Kaaterskill Clove. However, this view was far more subdued than the view we caught later from the base of the falls and lacked the grandeur that the lower viewpoints delivered. This overlook is easily reached by most visitors and while it still involves a bit of elevation change, the round trip from here to the parking lot is never steep and the trail is always well maintained.

Kaaterskill Falls from the overlook
View of the Catskills from the waterfall overlook
Returning along the overlook spur trail to the main trail, we turned right onto the main trail and crossed a bridge over Kaaterskill Creek. The creek was pretty, tumbling down a rocky and wide (by Appalachian standards) streambed through the brilliantly lit forest of autumn hardwoods.

Kaaterskill Creek
On the far side of the bridge, we came to a trail junction with the Escarpment Trail, where we took the right fork, which led towards the spur trail to Kaaterskill Falls. The wide, easy-hiking trail ended here, transitioning to a much rockier path that briefly ascended for an eighth of a mile to reach a junction with the Kaaterskill Falls Trail. We followed the Kaaterskill Falls Trail as it branched off to the right from the Escarpment Trail and began descending, first gradually and then more steeply, into the gorge below. The beautiful fall foliage canopy and bountiful mushrooms fruiting in the understory made the descent down some occasional stone steps quite enjoyable.

Mushrooms
Fall foliage
The trail turned right for a steeper final descent into the gorge, dropping down a set of staircases to reach a fork between the trails leading to the bases of the upper and lower falls. 

Staircase on the descent to the base of the falls
We took the right fork initially: this trail followed a sandstone ledge, clinging to the top of a cliff above the lower falls. The trail here was muddy and a bit slippery due to mist coming from the falls, so luckily a chain fence provided some support and protection. The trail ended on a sandstone ledge at the edge of a pool directly below the leaping, taller drop of the upper falls. The upper falls is a 180 foot free fall, which makes it just taller than Niagara Falls and the second tallest single drop in the state of New York, after Taughannock Falls near Ithaca.

Airy upper drop of Kaaterskill Falls
Thomas Cole, the painter who founded the Hudson River School (the first major landscape painting movement in the United States), painted Kaaterskill Falls multiple times, including once climbing to the rocky alcove behind the upper falls to paint that scene. Fellow painter Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits- a staple of art history textbooks- featured the falls as well. However, it was writer Washington Irving who first drew the attention of these European American artists to the area: he described the wildness of the falls vividly in Rip Van Winkle. Publicity from Irving and Cole eventually made Kaaterskill Falls a major tourist attraction in the later nineteenth century; the Laurel House, a large hotel, was built at the current trailhead to welcome tourists from New York City. By the mid-twentieth century, tourist attention had moved to other sights out West and Laurel House was torn down.

During our visit, water flow in Kaaterskill Creek was sufficient to make the waterfall quite impressive. However, in dry years (or even dry times of year), the waterfall may shrink to a trickle; I advise you to time your visit appropriately and check trail reports or river gauges in the area to get an idea of what to expect if you are set on seeing the falls in higher flow.

We also had lovely views from here of the steep, tree-lined walls of Kaaterskill Clove.

Forested Kaaterskill Clove
Returning to the main trail, we continued downhill on the long staircase, which ended at the base of the lower falls. From there, we made our way across some rocks to reach the banks of Kaaterskill Creek just below the lower falls. Here, we could see both drops of Kaaterskill Falls, an exceptionally scenic two-tier shape that almost reminded me of Yosemite Falls. This was the busiest spot on the hike; as there’s only a small area from which one can see the falls fully, expect things to be a bit crowded. After enjoying the views here, we retraced our steps and ascended the staircases out of the gorge to return to the trailhead.

View from the base of the lower drop of Kaaterskill Falls
This was a great short hike to one of the more impressive waterfalls on the East Coast. The only real drawback to this hike is the crowds: the beauty of the falls is well known and the hike is short, so this is a popular spot. While there’s enough room on the hike for people to spread out a bit (or at least to avoid lengthy queuing at popular viewpoints), the trailhead parking for this hike is likely to be overcapacity on nice weekends.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Giant Ledge

Fall colors of the Catskills from Giant Ledge
3 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The sweeping views of the high peaks of the Catskills makes Giant Ledge one of the most popular summit hikes in New York State's Catskill Park. The hike delivers panoramic vistas of the range's most spectacular mountains while requiring a relatively mild effort, by Catskill standards; however, this trail still involves a good amount of uphill and has multiple stretches that are very rocky, so novice hikers should understand that although this is an easier wilderness hike in the Catskills, it's still a wilderness hike in the Catskills.

I hiked up to Giant Ledge with Anna and my parents in mid-October during a fall color trip through the Catskills. The trailhead is about three hours driving from the New York metro area; we took I-87 (the New York Thruway) north to exit 19 for Kingston and Route 28, where we exited and then hopped onto Route 28 heading west from the exit roundabout. We followed Route 28 for about 30 miles west into the mountains to the village of Big Indian, where we turned left onto Oliverea Road (signs before the turn indicated the direction of the Giant Ledge trailhead). We then followed Oliverea Road south for 7 miles, passing through the village of Oliverea before ascending into the mountains and coming to the trailhead, which was at a sharp right bend in the road. Parking at the trailhead is unfortunately limited as there's no parking lot; you'll have to find room on the shoulder of Oliverea Road. We did not have trouble finding parking when we arrived on an autumn Tuesday, although I would certainly imagine that on nice weekends you might have to park some distance away from the trailhead and walk along the road to get to the start of the hike.

The hike started on the yellow marker Phoenicia East Branch Trail, which left Oliverea Road at the sharp bend in the road. The trail crossed over a small footbridge at the beginning and then immediately entered the Slide Mountain Wilderness, a wilderness preserve within Catskill Park that protects Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the range. The trail was initially fairly flat as we followed it through a beautiful autumn forest to a sturdy footbridge spanning a small stream. After crossing the stream, the trail began a steady ascent over the next three-quarters of a mile to reach the high ridge connecting Slide Mountain to Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain.

The Phoenicia East Branch Trail was quite rocky in places, especially during the steeper stretches of the ascent; wet soil from recent rains and copious fallen autumn leaves made the path a bit more treacherous at that time of year. However, there was plenty around the trail to entertain and reward us on what would otherwise have been a rocky uphill slog: the forest around us was at peak color and mushrooms were popping out all over the forest floor. This initial stretch of trail carries the majority of the hike's elevation gain, with just under 600 feet of uphill between the footbridge and the ridge.

Peak color
Autumn leaves of the Catskills
Mushrooms everywhere
Autumn mushrooms
At three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, after a final push up a particularly rocky stretch, we arrived at the top of the ridge and came to an intersection with the Giant Ledge-Panther Mountain Trail, which was signed with blue markers. At this four-way intersection, we turned left and began following the blue-marked trail north along the ridge. This marked the halfway point of the hike, although at this point we had completed a majority of the hike's elevation gain. 

The half mile of trail that followed was fairly gentle as we followed a wide and fairly flat ridge that rose inperceptibly as we traveled north, although this stretch was surprisingly wet and muddy. The beautiful peak foliage in the forest around us made the rock-hopping through the mud a little more pleasant; it was interesting to me that we would find so much water at what is essentially the top of a mountain.

Beautiful foliage and flat hiking along the ridge of Panther Mountain
The Giant Ledge Trail became much steeper at one and a quarter miles into the hike. The final quarter mile of the hike was particularly rocky and ascended over 200 feet; many of the rock steps here were quite high and although most hikers can deal with this stretch without using their hands, some may find they have to engage in some mild rock scrambling here. We passed a small spur trail on the left that led to a spring at the start of this final ascent; otherwise, the trail was quite straightforward, heading continuously uphill through the rocks.

Rocky trail along the ridge on final ascent to Giant Ledge
The trail leveled out atop the long summit ridge of Giant Ledge, although it remained quite rocky. After a mile and a half of hiking from the trailhead, we came to an unmarked spur path to the right, which led briefly downhill and brought us out onto a rocky outcrop with a spectacular view: this was the first of the ledges at Giant Ledge and the destination of this hike.

There was a stunning 180-degree panorama of the Catskills east of Giant Ledge. Below us, the hardwood forests of the range were approaching peak color, although substantial swaths of green remained at lower elevations. The forested slopes of Giant Ledge eventually dropped into the gentle cradle of Woodland Valley, which was bound by Mount Pleasant on its far end. Beyond Mount Pleasant rose the imposing ridge formed by Indian Head Mountain, Twin Mountain, and Plateau Mountain, which are collectively known as the Devil's Path. An extremely challenging trail of that same name connects that chain of mountaintops. Beyond these peaks, the Catskills dropped away to the Hudson River Valley; we could not make out details in the Hudson River Valley clearly but could see the faraway peaks of the Taconics and the Berkshires- including what must have been Massachusetts' Mount Greylock- rising across the valley.

Remarkably, the view included no obvious signs of human habitation: no houses or roads or power lines were clearly visible, so this view gave the illusion that the range- which is actually quite populated- was some remote, untrammeled wilderness. 

Woodland Valley and the Greene County high peaks
Slide Mountain rose to the south as the high point of a ridge that included Wittenburg and Cornell Mountains. At 4190 feet, Slide Mountain is the highest point in the Catskills and the crowning summit of the Catskill High Peaks, which consists of the 35 Catskill peaks that exceed 3500 feet. 

Cornell and Slide Mountains from Giant Ledge
There are a total of five ledges at Giant Ledge, each a rocky outcrop facing east with similar views; hikers wishing for a quieter experience can continue past the first ledge to one of the later overlooks for a bit more solitude. Hikers who are done with the rocky Catskill terrain won't miss out on too much if they turn back after this first ledge, however. Intrepid hikers looking for a longer day hike can continue north up the ridge to the summit of Panther Mountain, roughly a 6 mile round trip journey, but most hikers will find Giant Ledge to be a sufficiently satisfying destination. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Mount Baldy (Indiana Dunes)

Lake Michigan from the Mount Baldy dune
1.3 miles round trip, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Mount Baldy is the only remaining living dune at Indiana Dunes National Park, making it a must-visit for hikers looking to see a large expanse of sand at this new national park. The short hike around this dune and down to a sandy beach along Lake Michigan is quite enjoyable, although it unfortunately does not visit the sandy summit of this dune, which has been off limits to visitors for years due to sand instability. Hiking the beach at Mount Baldy also gives visitors a chance to reflect on the fate of nearby Hoosier Slide, once the tallest of Indiana's dunes.

I hiked Mount Baldy during a day trip to Indiana Dunes National Park while visiting a good friend who was living in Chicago at the time. The day of our hike was a little on the humid side, with warm temperatures and overcast skies that threatened rain for much of the day. We drove in from Chicago, taking I-94 south and east into Indiana and leaving the interstate at exit 26A for Route 49. Upon exiting, we took Route 49 north for two miles and then made a left turn for the ramp to connect with US Route 12; we took the right fork at the bottom of the ramp to head east on US Route 12. We followed US 12 east for 8.5 miles until coming to a wide rightward bend in the road where the Mount Baldy turnoff was on the left side of the road; we turned left here and drove to the parking lot at the end of the road, where there was parking for at least 60 cars. There were flush toilets at this trailhead.

The back side of Mount Baldy abuts the parking lot. Mount Baldy is a living dune, and the wall of sand on its back end has gradually been shifting inland, swallowing trees in the forest and moving now to the edge of the current parking lot. The sand ramparts visible from the parking lot are perhaps the most vivid reminder of the power of the Indiana Dunes in the national park.

Mount Baldy dune swallowing trees
The trail to Mount Baldy beach started from the entrance of the parking lot. Initially paralleling the road, the trail ascended briefly via a boardwalk staircase before depositing us onto a broad, sandy trail cutting through the forest. The loose sand underfoot here was our main indication that the verdant hardwood forest around us was actually growing atop a sand dune. The trail descended for a stretch before beginning to climb up the forested shoulder of Mount Baldy. The former summit trail for Mount Baldy branched off to the right and led towards the main dune, but this trail is now off limits. In 2013, a 6-year old boy was swallowed by the dune while near the summit of Mount Baldy, launching a frantic three hour rescue effort that fortunately ended with a successful rescue. Park officials later found that decaying trees would leave holes in the interior of Mount Baldy, making the dune prone to collapse, and has since limited the top of the dune to guided tours.

Sandy trail down to the beach
The sandy trail then led uphill to the ridgeline of Mount Baldy dune. Here, the forest ended and a slope of sand opened up beneath us, running down to the shoreline of vast Lake Michigan. Even from this vantage point high above the lake, we could see no end to this inland freshwater sea- just a forever calm mirror reflecting the rays of sunshine piercing the grey pregnant clouds.

The descent down the dune to the lake was the most fun stretch of the hike: a few bounding strides brought us down to the sandy beach beneath Mount Baldy (Conversely, the ascent up this slope during the return was the most physically strenuous part of the hike, as I would backslide a step for every two steps forward). The beach at the base of the descent was quite crowded, with most visitors to Mount Baldy Beach enjoying the water within a hundred yards of where the trail met the beach.

Dune meets the beach at Mount Baldy
The trail ended here at the beach, but it was possible to wander freely along the beach in either direction; unfortunately, the body of the dune itself was cordoned off and inaccessible. We chose to head to the right (east) as the bulk of the dune lay to the east. As we hiked along the base of the towering piles of sand, the crowds evaporated and soon it was just us, the dunes, the lake, and the NIPSCO Michigan City coal-fired power plant in the distance.

Tall dunes and the NIPSCO Michigan City power plant
Lake Michigan is the largest lake entirely within the United States and the third largest of the Great Lakes by surface area (although if Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are considered one contiguous lake- which technically they are- the combined body of water would be the largest freshwater lake in the world by area). The Great Lakes were collectively formed by glacial erosion during periods of continental glaciation in the most recent Ice Ages. The glaciers that carved out Lake Michigan's basin also left a large amount of finely ground glacial sediment, which lake currents in more recent millenia deposited on the eastern shore of the lake. These deposits eventually formed the many sand dunes of Lake Michigan, which stretch from Sleeping Bear Dunes in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan to the Indiana Dunes and include notable features like the Saugatuck Dunes and the Silver Lake Dunes.

Mount Baldy dune and Lake Michigan
Although Mount Baldy is today the largest of the Indiana Dunes, the lakefront landscape of Lake Michigan was far different just over a century ago. Before the Port of Indiana and the cities of Gary and Michigan lined this lakeshore, there were massive dunes along the lakeshore, the tallest of which was Hoosier Slide, a 200 foot dune just east of where Mount Baldy stands today that rose above the growing settlement of Michigan City. However, as the Midwest turned into the industrial powerhouse of the world in the early twentieth century, demand grew for industrial facilities along the shores of Lake Michigan. Hoosier Slide- the biggest of all the Indiana Dunes and one of the state's greatest tourist attractions at the turn of the century- suffered an ignominious fate. Industrialists bought up the land where the dune stood and in the early 1900s the Hoosier Slide Sand Company began carting away the dune's sands by the railcar. The sand found of Hoosier Slide found its way into various industrial purposes; in one case, the Ball Brothers- famous even today for their Mason jars- discovered that the dune sand could be used to make beautifully blue tinted glass, so they participated in the desecration of the dune, gradually turning this soaring geological feature into their "Ball Blue" jars for home canning. By the 1920s, the tallest sand dune in Indiana had disappeared and the land it once occupied was acquired by NIPSCO at the end of that decade for a coal-fired power plant.

The state of Indiana established Indiana Dunes State Park in the 1925 to protect a small stretch of the dunefield as locals began to advocate for the preservation of the dunes. However, by the mid-century, the dunes were again under threat as plans were drawn up for the Port of Indiana at Gary. Advocates for preserving the dunes included the poet Carl Sandburg, who declared that the dunes were "eternity's signature" and that the dunes "are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona." Senator Paul Douglas of Indiana lobbied John F. Kennedy on the matter of saving the dunes, leading to a compromise with a smaller footprint for the Port of Indiana and the establishment of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The lakeshore was upgraded to a national park designation in 2019, a move championed by senators of both parties from Indiana.

Dunes along Lake Michigan
We ended our hike after walking about a third of a mile down the beach, reaching the eastern end of the Mount Baldy dune. We were within a stone's throw of the NIPSCO Michigan City power plant. In 2021, Indiana was still the nation's third largest consumer of coal power- understandable considering the role that energy-intensive heavy industry plays in the state's economy. However, NIPSCO already intends to decomission the Michigan City coal plant in the coming decade and wind power is growing quickly, so in the future there may not be a concrete cooling tower dominating the Lake Michigan skyline at Mount Baldy. Hoosier Slide is not coming back, but maybe there will be a place for waterborne sands to accumulate once again.

Mount Baldy dunes and Lake Michigan
Mount Baldy and the Indiana Dunes are not the showiest or flashiest of America's natural wonders, but they have a subtle beauty and are today preserved for us because of the dedication and love that previous generations of Midwesterners held for this landscape. If you're in Chicago or the state of Indiana during the warmer months, you should make your way out to these dunes. When you do, be sure to visit Mount Baldy to see this great dune meet the lake and to reflect on the site's complex history.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Crystal Lake (Mammoth Lakes)

The Mammoth Crest rises over Crystal Lake
3 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee required

Crystal Lake is a reasonably short and sweet and extremely popular hike to a small alpine lake above the main Mammoth Lakes Basin in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada. The ___-mile round trip hike starts from an incredibly popular trailhead at Lake George and follows the first mile of the Mammoth Crest Trail up forested mountain slopes to some fabulous views of the Mammoth Lakes Basin before arriving at the destination lake. While this is certainly an enjoyable and scenic hike, it is also very busy, so you may want to consider quieter options on summer weekends and holidays. Additionally, while Crystal Lake is pretty, there are also far prettier landscapes nearby- although many of those destinations do require more involved hikes. This is a worthwhile hike, but it may not deserve a spot at the top of your list if you have limited time around Mammoth.

I hiked to Crystal Lake on a July holiday weekend trip to Mammoth with Anna and mom. Mammoth Lakes is a long way from any major metropolitan area, at over five hours of driving from either the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles; you’ll reach the town via US 395 regardless of which direction you come from. South of Lee Vining, exit US 395 for Highway 203 and follow 203 west through the town of Mammoth Lakes; if you drive straight and make no turns, you’ll end up on the Lake Mary Road, which climbs out of the far end of town and then brings you up into the Mammoth Lakes Basin. After the road reaches Lake Mary, turn left for the Around Lake Mary Road just after passing Pokenobe Marina. Follow this road across a bridge over the outlet stream of Lake Mary, then turn right onto the narrow but still paved Lake George Road. Lake George Road winds briefly through the forest to a relatively large, loop-structured parking lot.

It’s important to arrive early at the trailhead: the parking lot at Lake George is one of the busiest in the Eastern Sierra Nevada and can become a traffic nightmare later in the day. Every spot is usually taken and entering and exiting the lot itself can be challenging due to the large number of cars that circle the lot, looking for a chance to park. Get here early to secure a spot and avoid the nuisance of midday traffic.

Before starting the hike, we walked from the parking lot down to the shore of Lake George. Lake George is a stunningly beautiful subalpine lake at the base of Crystal Crag and the Mammoth Crest; the toothlike form of Crystal Crag from the lakeshore is one of the iconic views of the Eastern Sierra.

Crystal Crag rising over Lake George
After appreciating Lake George, we were ready for our hike. We backtracked to the entrance of the parking lot to find the Mammoth Crest Trailhead, which was marked by a signboard with information for backpackers entering Ansel Adams Wilderness. The trail began to climb immediately from the trailhead, making a steady ascent through forested slopes. For the first 400 meters of the hike, the trail stayed fairly close to a long driveway leading up to multiple houses on the slopes above Lake George. Finally, at a quarter mile from the trailhead, the trail passed the end of that driveway; continuing the climb, it soon crested a forested ridge that had some openings delivering partial views of Lake George below and the rocky alpine wall of the Mammoth Crest to the southeast.

Crystal Crag and the Mammoth Crest
At a half mile, the trail began a moderately steep switchback ascent. While not necessarily difficult, this switchback passage maintained a constant uphill grade over just more than the next half mile, making this the most extended climb of the hike. After a couple of switchbacks, the trees began to thin out slightly, opening views of both the rocky Mammoth Crest above and the many shimmering blue lakes of the Mammoth Lakes Basin down below. Lake George lay directly below and was particularly spectacular; Lake Mary lay beyond and just downhill, with the red volcanic rock of the Sherwin Range bounding the other side of the Mammoth Lakes Basin. The Sherwin Range forms the southern boundary of Long Valley Caldera, the footprint of a massive volcano that formed in an eruption over 700,000 years ago.

Lake George and Lake Mary
After a few switchbacks with lake views, the trail returned to the forest, continuing its constant climb, until the Mammoth Crest Trail met with the Crystal Lake Trail at 1.1 miles from the trailhead. Here, I took the left fork to hop on the Crystal Lake Trail; this trail finally flattened out, traversing a mountain slope and coming out to an open viewpoint atop granite cliffs that rose over 600 vertical feet above Lake George. From this lofty, open viewpoint, we could see Horseshoe Lake and Lake Mamie, in addition to the view of Lakes George and Mary that we had earlier.

Mammoth Lakes
The Crystal Lake Trail continued through the forest to the shore of Crystal Lake, dropping slightly as it approached the lake. At about 1.4 miles, we arrived on the lakeshore, where we had a lovely view of the rock wall of the Mammoth Crest rising behind the lake’s sparkling waters. Crystal Crag rose to the southeast across the lake, although from this perspective it had lost the sharp and more rugged profile that it projects when viewed from Lake George. The first spot where the trail met the lakeshore was quite crowded, with many hikers ending their hike here. We followed the path along the west side of the lake to find a quiet spot to enjoy the lake before returning to the trailhead.

Crystal Crag and the Mammoth Crest rise over Crystal Lake
This was a pretty hike with plenty of great views; however, it was quite crowded as well, with hundreds of hikers on the trail during our hike and a completely jam-packed parking lot both when we arrived and when we left. Crystal Lake can be a worthwhile destination when it’s less crowded, but I’d recommend hikers to tackle the admittedly longer hikes to Little Lakes Valley or the Twenty Lakes Basin before choosing this slightly-too-popular hike.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Sierra Buttes Lookout

Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout
5 miles round trip, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Good paved but narrow road to trailhead, no fee required

Sierra Buttes is one of the most prominent peaks in the northern section of California’s Sierra Nevada, with a massive eastern headwall that makes it one of the most scenically impressive mountains in the state north of Tahoe. The fire lookout perched atop its highest point is reached by a hair-raising walk up a steel staircase and delivers fabulous views of Northern California, from the Coast Range to the Cascades to the Great Basin Desert. The ridge hike to this summit packs in views of forested peaks and jewel-like lakes, with plenty of wildflowers in early summer; while this hike doesn’t quite live up to the scenery standard set by the High Sierra further south, it is one of the most enjoyable and worthwhile hikes in its part of the state.

There are many ways to get to ascend Sierra Buttes; by far the easiest route involves driving a 4WD high clearance vehicle to the base of the lookout and simply ascending three flights of steel stairs to the summit. Most visitors, however, will find a hike ascent along the mountain’s north ridge from Packer Saddle to be the most rewarding, as this route packs in plenty of views along its moderate climb to the mountaintop. My friends and I, who were visiting Sierra Buttes after a holiday weekend stay in North Lake Tahoe, took the hike up from Packer Saddle; we also paid a brief visit to Lower Sardine Lake, a highly worthwhile stop on the drive in that provided us a beautiful view of the great headwall on the eastern side of the mountain. Packer Saddle is just over an hour driving from Truckee and at least 2.5 hours of driving from Sacramento.

Sierra Buttes and Lower Sardine Lake
We followed Gold Lakes Highway uphill for 1.3 miles from Highway 49, passing some jaw-dropping views of the precipitous east face of the Sierra Buttes. At the junction with the Sardine Lakes Road, we turned left; after crossing a bridge, we then turned right onto Packer Lake Road (although it’s also worth it to drive to the end of the road to see Sardine Lakes!). After turning onto Packer Lake Road, we drove uphill along a very well-maintained paved road with clear lane markings for 2.5 miles to Packer Lake Campground; past the campground, the road became very steep and narrower but remain paved, ascending through hairpin switchbacks until reaching the top of a ridge at 4.5 miles past the turnoff from Sardine Lakes Road. The paved road ended here; a final quarter mile of good gravel road descended along the ridge to the trailhead at Packer Saddle, where there was room to park about 20 cars. There is no fee and no restroom at the trailhead.

We headed south along an old service road from the trailhead at Packer Saddle. This road climbed steeply through the pine forest, quickly gaining the top of the ridge while making a stiff ascent. Blooming wildflowers around the trail provided interest and made the climb a little easier: paintbrush and lupine were particularly common here during our early July visit.

After a half mile of hiking from the trailhead, the trail narrowed to a single track and came to a flatter section of the ridge; at the fork between the wider road and the single track, I took the right fork for the single track trail (a rock barrier blocking the left fork clearly indicates not to head in that direction). Here, wildflowers bloomed profusely over an open ridgetop: the blooms of golden wyethia were particularly widespread and beautiful. The lower density of trees here also opened views off to both sides of the ridge as well as providing the hike’s first view of the lookout atop Sierra Buttes. When the flowers bloom here in spring and early summer, this is an absolutely beautiful stretch of trail that is certainly among the highlights of this hike.

Flower-filled ridgeline
Wyethia in bloom
At just under one mile from the trailhead, the flat trail ended at a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, which crossed over the Sierra Buttes Trail here. Oddly enough, the PCT never follows any section of the north ridge of Sierra Buttes, missing out on many of the great views offered by this mountain. After passing the trail junction, we began to ascend at a steady grade along the ridge. The ridge was forested to the west but generally open to the east, providing views of the Sierra Buttes ahead and to the forested mountains in the east. Towards the top of this ascent, at 1.2 miles from the trailhead, we caught some nice views of the two Tamarack Lakes in the basin below.

Overlooking Tamarack Lakes
The trail reentered the forest on the west slope of Sierra Buttes and continued climbing steadily upward. At 1.6 miles from the trailhead, a short spur leading left at a switchback brought us to a spectacular viewpoint above Young America Lake. This small lake was cradled in a rocky cirque directly below us and had a spectacular blue-green color when it was lit by the sunlight. From this spot, we also had a jaw-dropping view of the massive northeastern headwall of Sierra Buttes.

Young America and Sardine Lakes
Shortly beyond that first viewpoint of Young America Lake, the trail reemerged along a clearing on a flatter stretch of the ridge. The views of Young America Lake were slightly blocked here, but the view of the great cliffs of Sierra Buttes and the small lookout perched atop the highest pinnacle were quite spectacular. The trail came to another junction at 1.8 miles; I continued following the single-track trail closest to the ridge, eschewing the wider 4WD road that came up from the right.

Sierra Buttes and the summit lookout
The trail continued climbing steeply through the forest after the junction, making multiple switchbacks as it pushed towards the summit. At 2.1 miles, the single-track trail merged with the 4WD road that leads to the summit. It’s important to make note of this junction: it is easy for hikers to miss this turn on the way down. Joining the 4WD road, we continued to head uphill through a series of switchbacks. This wide, rutted gravel road soon broke out of the forest onto the windswept alpine slopes of the upper mountain, opening up incredible views to the north and west. At the northern end of various switchbacks here, we caught incredible views of the vertical eastern headwalls of the Sierra Buttes and saw the lookout perched precariously atop the mountain’s highest pinnacle.

Jackson Meadows Reservoir and Sierra Crest
Views to the south opened up as the 4WD road ended at the base of the Sierra Buttes’ summit block. From here, a three-part steel staircase climbed a final 150 feet to the very highest point of the mountain. It’s extraordinary that this ladder was installed in such a precarious place. Some hikers will find the staircase to be too much; rest assured that reaching this point still guarantees sweeping views of the Central Valley, the Coast Range, Lassen Peak to the north, and the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the south.

Looking up to the Sierra Buttes Lookout
The final ascent up the three steel staircases to reach the summit were the most thrilling stretch of this hike. While the staircases may look terrifying to some, I found them fairly straightforward to go up and down in person; the last of these staircases, which is airier underneath than the first two, is a bit more likely to trigger acrophobia. At the end of the ladders, a final ten meters of uphill through a stone pile brought me to the foot of Sierra Buttes lookout. A short steel staircase brought me to the fire lookout’s upper deck, the highest point of the hike on top of this 8591-foot high summit. Not everyone will be okay with the ladders: three of the five in our group went up the ladders, while two decided to stick to the base and enjoy the views from there.

Starting up the staircase
Looking down from the top of the staircase
I made my way gingerly around the upper deck of Sierra Buttes lookout, with a steel lattice floor being all that separated me from a thousand-foot vertical drop down the east face of the mountain. The airiness of this drop was thrilling.

Eastern headwall of Sierra Buttes
The 360-degree view achieved by going around the deck of the lookout was too packed with peaks and landmarks for me to note them all, but I’ll give it a go. To the south, we could see along the crest of the Sierra Nevada towards snow-covered mountains near Donner Pass and Lake Tahoe, while the drier but still noteworthy peaks of the Carson Range were visible further east. Jackson Meadows Reservoir was visible amidst the forested slopes of the Sierra. Sierra Valley, a flat basin to the east over Yuba Pass, was somewhat visible, with layered mountains of the Basin and Range visible beyond it. The Sardine Lakes were visible directly below the lookout to the east.

To the west lay the vast Central Valley. Sutter Buttes- a tiny, isolated range of hills in the middle of the valley- stood out from the flat farmland. Across the valley rose the Coast Ranges, which rose from more hill-like forms in the south to more impressive heights in the north, with Snow Mountain, a 7000-foot peak directly across the valley, especially notable. Mount Diablo was visible far to the south- it was crazy to think that I could see this Bay Area icon from both Sierra Buttes and from where I lived, nearly a five-hour drive away. The Yuba River's deep canyon was cut into the forested slopes of the Sierra Nevada below me to the west, while the Sierra Nevada became progressively more tame as it headed north, the rocky peaks fading into forested and rounded ridges. Lassen Peak, a great plug dome volcano and the southernmost peak of the Cascades, broke that monotony to the north; on a clear day, I imagine that Mount Shasta, the greatest of the California Cascade volcanoes, would be visible from here, but it was a bit too cloudy on the day of my visit.  

Looking west into the Yuba River watershed
Sardine Lakes below, Sierra Valley in the distance
Lassen Peak
Mount Diablo across Central Valley
Sutter Buttes, Coast Ranges, Central Valley
The inside of the fire lookout is still furnished with a refrigerator and a stovetop, from the days when Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout was an active fire lookout. At the time of writing (but likely for not too much longer), the Sierra Buttes and the Yuba River watershed remain one of the few mountainous areas of Northern California that have not been hit by the megafires devastating California: the 2021 Caldor Fire, the 2020 North Complex, and the 2021 Dixie Fire devastated the Feather and American River watersheds to the north and south of the Sierra Buttes, respectively. For the moment, the view from the lookout still covers a landscape that is largely green and remains covered with conifers.

The hike to the fire lookout atop Sierra Buttes is one of the premier hikes of the northern Sierra Nevada. The trail combines a good workout with stellar views, a fun staircase ascent, and lots of wildflowers. While this is a relatively popular hike for the region- we saw upwards of twenty hiking groups over the course of the day- it is still reasonably peaceful and far quieter than the busy trails of the Tahoe region. Highly recommended.